Infant Nation

Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, by Gordon S. Wood. Oxford History of the United States. Oxford University Press.

Image: George Washington statue by Horatio Greenough in the National Museum of American History

This volume in the Oxford History of the United States covers the period from the ratification of the Federal Constitution to the end of the War of 1812. Like The Republic for Which It Stands, which I wrote about awhile ago, this is another broad-based account of a crucial period in the development of our nation. The themes are the emergence of a strong central government, the early development of political parties and sectional divisions, the rapid growth of population, and above all, the struggle over the meaning of liberty in a post colonial society.

The major players, of course, are Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Jay, Marshall and Franklin. Wood, however, makes sure to feature the lesser actors, especially the anti-elitists, who formed the core of the early Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, in opposition to the aristocratic tendencies of so many of the founders.  The democratic, egalitarian tendencies of the state legislatures were a major concern for the leaders of the new federal government, who found their volatile politics threatening to stable government. There were very different views among even these federalists as to how far the Constitution permitted the Federal government to regulate the laws and policies of individual states.

At the same time these issues were before Americans, in Europe the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars presented difficult challenges in foreign policy. American elites, much like the British elites, were appalled and frightened by the Jacobins and the Reign of Terror. Anti-elitists found the fall of the Ancien Regime inspiring and even adopted the symbols and style of the revolutionary French. The slave revolt in Haiti, likewise stoked fears of uprisings in the slave states, of which there were still many in the north as well as the south.

All these problems led many to doubt whether the new republic could survive without strong measures to keep social order. The Alien and Sedition Acts, passed by the Federalists under John Adams’s administration, were a manifestation of these fears. They deepened the divisions between the Federalists and the emerging Republicans. There was also a split over the financial practices of Alexander Hamilton, who favored legislation to facilitate commerce and banking. Jefferson hated the man and his policies, fearing that they promoted elitism, bordering on aristocracy, and threatened his vision of a nation dominated by independent farmers. The Federalists in turn saw Jefferson as a dangerous Jacobin. Ironically, Jefferson himself was one of the most aristocratic of the founders.

One of the themes that I found most interesting and which was new to me was the challenge faced in establishing the rule of law in the new republic. A key question was what role English Common Law, the complex collection of precedents developed by English judges, would play at both the state and federal level. Many Americans perceived this law as favoring the government, property holders and lawyers over ordinary citizens. In several state legislatures efforts began to develop a comprehensive set of statutes to replace the common law, so that judges would be bound by clear requirements and not by arcane principles known only to themselves. Meanwhile, the federal courts had to be established, and a struggle ensued over what the Congress’s power to impeach judges meant, in particular, whether the notion that they held office on good behavior meant that they could be removed if Congress judged their decisions were wrong. Several attempts were made to remove early judges for such reasons, before the question was settled more or less in favor of judicial independence. In particular the appointment of John Marshall as Chief Justice by the outgoing President, John Adams, a staunch Federalist, gave the Supreme Court an able champion and a great consensus builder. Since he served until 1835, his influence firmly established the judiciary as a coequal branch of government. Among other key decisions, the protection of the rights of contract and of corporations reinforced property rights at a time when popular sentiment was against the large land speculators who were flocking to the western territories. His decisions also established the principle that the federal courts could overturn state and federal laws that conflicted with the Constitution. Wood does an excellent job of explaining these developments.

During this period, slavery was gradually disappearing in the northern states, and even many southerners, notably Jefferson, expressed the view that it ought to eventually end altogether. Unfortunately, this period was only a sort of interlude before the conflict burst forth and became the most divisive issue in the country. The combination of increased cotton production and rapid westward expansion changed the growing slave population in states like Virginia from a potential liability into an asset. More and more men, women and children were sold and shipped west to work the new lands, especially after the war of 1812.

The developing republic also saw the emergence of religious, social and economic patterns that were clearly distinct from both the colonial past and monarchical Europe. Wood devotes several chapters to describing these changes and the men and women who influenced them.

Wood ends his account with the conclusion of the War of 1812, from which the young republic was lucky to escape with no more than the destruction of its barely started capital city. The poor leadership and organization of the army led to several debacles. Only significant victories by naval forces, not at sea, but on the lakes bordering Canada, stopped British invasions. The American victory at New Orleans, after the war had already been settled by treaty, was turned into a major triumph, both for the future President, Andrew Jackson, and for the United States. Wood describes the deepening confidence and sense of standing as a nation among nations that followed. What had begun as a frail experiment in republican government was now secure, confident and aware of its future potential.

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